I’ll buy a vowel, Pat.

February 4, 2009

A French friend was struggling to enunciate the verb that describes what goes on in her laboratory/office. “Oh, research” I reply. She was making the sounds of the word’s component letters, but with her French accent and lack of familiarity with English phonemics, it all came out wrong. I told her, “think of a Donkey. Donkeys go, ‘HEE-haw,’ now go ‘REE-search.'” She giggled, felt a little embarrassed, but she nailed it and has has never had a problem with it since. This got me thinking about how I pronounce words. “Research” is not a word I say often, but I was messing about with it, and it dawned on me that I say “ree-search,” “ruh-search,” and “rih-search” interchangeably. I found it baffling that I would say one word three ways, yet always be understood. Obviously if a there was a separate word pronounced “ruh-search,” which meant, lets say, “to defenestrate your mom,” I would be able to say “research” while never accidentally suggesting the possibility that I would want to toss your mother against the nearest single-pane.

Of course most of us do not learn “proper pronunciation” whatever that is. We learn to say the words well enough to be understood and then are left to our own devices, probably not corrected for the majority of our phonemic missteps beyond the age of eleven or so. While this works and it’s all fine and good, it has the problem of really fucking up my spelling. It seems I only semi-memorized how to spell words, I say them in my mind as I type them and my brain comes up with letter combinations that best match what I remember and how I say it. When I read my spelling errors aloud, the word reads precisely how I would say it.

My sociolinguistics class touched upon the British solution to this problem, Received Pronunciation. Of course the British would come up with a name for their “standard” dialect that invokes an image of God handing Standard British English on a silver platter to a horde of Druids, which is probably what the British thought they were doing with their language as they handed it to the teeming masses of India, Belize, and wherever else they’ve slammed down their linguistic stamp. Fortunately this gave the world the gift of Indian women with crisp chipper English accents, which I find infinitely delectable.

America lacks the stark pronunciation politics, and the strong accents of the British Isles. Sure New Yorkers mock the dulcet tones of Sarah Palin, Larry the Cable Guy, and many from Appalachia and the Deep South (I bet those folk have their own linguistic pet peeves, but I wouldn’t know), but people are not judged as harshly for their regional accents as the Brits. I recall the Beatles not paving over their Liverpool accents being a big deal back home. One a related note, I met a guy in the Airforce who was from Podunk, Midwest who says the military is rife with guys, like him, from tiny towns in the middle of nowhere, with strong local accents. When they get in the military, they try to sound like everyone else. This is why, I imagine, military guys tend to have a particular accent.

In a similar vein, the Television networks adopted an accent seemingly devoid of regional features for our newscasters and actors. I have mixed feelings about this. I believe the “TV accent”, or “General American,” as Wikipedia calls it, is eroding the local American accent. New York is famous for our accents, watch any New York movie or TV show from the 60’s and 70’s and you’ll see what I mean. While still you hear local New York accents, they are not as strong or as varied as they used to. Maybe I am looking back on the past with rosy shades, but I wish I had some strong New York accent. I grew up talking like most of the people on the TV, and it seems most people I know sound the same way. I find my accent flat, devoid of the rhythmic tones you find among the among the Irish, the Scottish, or the glorious accents of the West indies. I wish my voice moved up and down in melody, but it does not. I love my words, but I wish they had a more musical nature to them.


Oh Brave New Blog, What People In It!

January 13, 2009

It's more frustrating than it is intimidating.

Many people say they do not enjoy New York because of the crowds. Most likely, they have learned their distaste from riding the subway. Descending the stairs into to the Times Square uptown IRT platform (that means the 1, 2, & 3 trains, for you young’uns) in the midst of full-on rush hour, one cannot help but intimidated. The platform is a packed shifting sea of bodies with coats, shopping bags, briefcases, and backpacks which, in this town, have an equal chance of being filled with law books, bongs, or artisanal cheese. The backpacks on tall people are the worst, jutting out at right angles, they threaten to cold-cock any small children. Navigating this bedlam requires a mix of determination with a delicate touch, because as much as you want to make your way through the sea of dreadlocks, hipster hats with tiny brims, and 90 dollar haircuts, you don’t want to somehow cause a chain reaction of falling people that leads to someone to be pushed off the platform.

Getting onto the train is another challenge entirely. When the train arrives, one attempts to optimally position themselves by the train doors, creating a corridor that allows people to get out, and lets the lucky straphanger (that’s City Talk for anyone who rides a subway or bus) to be one of the first few people in. Getting from a packed train platform into a moderately full subway car is very much akin to the 1950’s pastime of stuffing people into a telephone booths, except that this is far less fun.

Things become very Darwinian in a flash, does it matter that the pixie with blazing red hair has only 8 minutes to get to her audition for a choreographer who detests lateness? Does one feel compassion toward the impossibly tall realtor who had to fill in for her partner at the last moment, so she’s been on her feet all day (in the wrong shoes, mind you), aching to go home to NPR and a foot bath of Epsom salts? Does anyone mourn for the middle-aged fellow in the grey pinstripe suit, a recovering alcoholic (3 years sober) with a crumbling marriage, and a daughter who he hasn’t spoken to in 15 months; a man so close to having a drink that his ability to successfully get into the arriving train may be all that will save him from falling off the wagon? The answer to all these questions is unequivocally, no.

Most New Yorkers are very compassionate people, but when on a crowded train platform, that goes by the wayside; all that remains is an unspoken code of decorum. As long as there is no outright pushing, vigorous shoving or any violence, a spot in a crowded train, or a lone seat is a free-for-all. The personal assistant moves as fast as she can, the copywriter will wedge his body between the two rotund middle-schoolers, and the crafty pre-law student will intentionally angle herself as to cut in front of the short-order cook next to her once the train doors open. In a place of such condensed impersonal impatience and madness, it’s a really effective way of getting the job done, there is no time for “no, no, no, you get on the train, I’ll wait for the next one, I insist.” That is better used for moments of passive aggression best exemplified by Old-World relatives, and the once common, but now rare, polite-off (as in face-off, dance-off, or muffin-off), where you must try to outdo the kindness of the other fellow and somehow shame them into being done a favor by you.